Boeing is hinting that it might have to rethink its slow-selling and delayed 747-8 programme, amid the continuing failure to land a second airline for the passenger model combined with a slowdown in demand for cargo aircraft.

The airframer took a $685 million charge last year stemming from cost overruns and schedule delays on the 747-8 programme. While Boeing executives have restated their support for the commercial viability of the aircraft, chief executive Jim McNerney warns that the continuation of the programme should not be seen as a foregone conclusion: "We still see a viable business proposition here. Now obviously if we ever got to a point where we didn't, we'd have to work with our customers to come up with another answer."

Boeing has 106 orders for the 747-8 including 28 for the 747-8I: 20 for Lufthansa and the remainder for VIP customers. In November, deliveries of the first 747-8F were pushed back by at least six months to the third quarter of 2010, and of the 747-8I by at least four months to the second quarter of 2011.

 © Boeing

"Obviously, we have applied a judgement that says we have a very competitive airplane here that has already got a good start on orders," says McNerney. "If we didn't believe the revenues would outweigh the costs we wouldn't go forward with it."

Flight International understands that Boeing has studied various options for the programme, including terminating the 747-8I and running the 747-8F standalone. This would require the renegotiation of Lufthansa's launch order and compensation. But with no active sales campaigns ongoing for the 747-8I, other than a potential long-term deal to replace Air Force One, Lufthansa faces the serious prospect of being the only airline customer for the passenger version, and this in itself could have financial implications for Boeing such as residual value guarantees.

Despite its more healthy orderbook, the -8F could also need to re-examining. The cargo industry is in the middle of a slump because of the downturn, and industry sources say several -8F customers are seeking to delay deliveries.

What McNerney's "other answer" to the 747-8 could be is unclear. Cargo industry sources say that near-term capacity could be provided by readily available 747-400 freighters combined with Boeing-supplied conversions of ex-passenger -400s.

Source: Flight International